Two sides of the same brain

Ben Storey (left) and Calvin Atkinson in "Someone Brought Me" playing in Quince Productions' Gayfest! (Photo by John Donges)

Two tables with anonymous clutter stand in a squalid room. The boy (Dexter Anderson) squats downstage, under enough light to make out the angles of his face, and that’s it. During a long pause, someone shuffles around behind a curtain with some equipment.

Boy: Should I—do you want me to start?

Man 1: I have a heater. Do you want me to get it for you? 

Long, perhaps minute-long silences inhabit the spaces between lines. A sullen strip-tease commences. We see the boy’s naked, beaten body (boy is a relative term; Anderson is probably in his mid-20s) by the lights of the man’s (Calvin Atkinson) camera flash.

Director Rich Rubin’s gravid pauses and lighting designer Eric Baker’s imperceptible lighting build the daringly grim vision of Daniel Talbott’s Someone Brought Me, the last main stage production to open at Quince Productions’ GayFest. After nuclear conflict, America has become restrictive and totalitarian to most of the populace, while members of the wealthy uber-world eat caviar and course the world freely because of their success and their money.

Talbott’s vision of a not-too-distant future is not so different from the reality in countries with stark divides between rich and poor. For example, the displacement of an entire ward onto leaky ships, a story that Man 2 (Ben Storey) relates, is not radically different from the displacement of 1.5 million people in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

While these history lessons often feel out of place (Talbott’s excuses for exposition are at times a bit contrived), they are paralleled thematically by an engaging main story, which is one of force, cruelty and hard-won mercy. Man 2 (Storey) was a roving American artist in “what was once East Europe,” who brought home a boy he’d fallen in lust or love with, marrying him and then ditching him. So Atkinson’s character, who is now a celebrity photographer, was born in our modern developing world. Only chance has reversed the two men’s positions and brought squalidity to people used to relative luxury.

Calvin Atkinson is supremely watchable in the main role. Talbott’s script is a risky one and, with its often-hyperbolic dialogue, could easily become a childish revenge story in less careful hands. But Atkinson brings a spooky charm and remarkable emotional control to his part, managing the flow between childish cruelty and measured sensitivity, all behind a chilly facade.

GayFest has largely dominated the otherwise theater-scarce month of August. Talbott’s script does not necessarily explore gay themes; rather, the single-sex cast allows the play to avoid gender politics and explore financial, sexual, and physical violence and exploitation. But, the presence of gay relationships on stage in a play not about gay relationships may be as important as other LGBTQ theater. 

It is far weightier than the show it shares the stage with, Philip Rudnick’s The New Century, which opened two and a half hours before it, also at the Adrienne Theater’s 2nd Stage.

Indeed, it seems you could not present two such different plays. The New Century, by Broadway veteran Paul Rudnick, presents Mr. Charles (R. Eric Thomas), who has been thrown out of New York City for being “too gay;” Helene (Elaine Fydrych), Long Island mother to a lesbian, an MTF transsexual lesbian, and more; and Barbara Ellen (Peggy Smith), big-haired Illinois craftophiliac stung by New York’s rejection of her art.

With three-quarters of it made up of one-liner-studded monologues, The New Century often plays like spot-on stand-up comedy. In the final scene all of the characters, with farcical improbability, collide.

Written as stereotypes of the gay man, the Jewish mother, and the Illinois hick, the characters are given deep emotional struggles in order to enforce their humanity. What ties these privileged, improbably witty, characters to Talbott’s (who are representatives of a diametrically opposite side of that privilege) is that Rudnick’s characters are similarly scarred by loss and rejection.

The New York run of Rudnick’s play was condemned by some reviewers as being little more than a string of hilarious one-liners delivered by talented actors, with an aimless final scene. Indeed, Rudnick seems more at home writing the hilarious monologues than the final scene, in which he, perhaps a bit overtly, pushes his characters towards revelation. But while the farce’s deus-ex-machina solution to depression (shopping and dancing) may not be the answers to the human condition that we expect to find in art, the contentious point being made here is that they are perfectly passable short-term solutions for a consumerist culture. At least until we discover, you know, all of the answers.

It is not unfair to say that Peggy Smith steals this show. At times it feels like the script is doing more work than the actors. Not so with Smith, who digs into Barbara Ellen’s internal contradictions—the bubbly exterior laid over a deep sadness, the canny matron stumbling to grips with a wider world (“I thought they said ‘muslin terrorists,’” she says about 9/11)—which makes the stereotypical Decatur crafter into a real person, the true goal of this play. Smith possesses flawless comic timing, and might even be able to make you tear up. Will Connell as Shane, Mr. Charles’ dull-witted yet heroically idealistic young protege, also deserves mention. He dexterously maintains dopey pretty-boy charm while spewing out revelation after idealistic revelation, a balance that is key to keeping the final moments of the play believable. Prop designer Alison Lima is obviously an expert crafter to rival Barbara Ellen’s skill; costumer John Hodges’ creations light up the stage.

Someone Brought Me and The New Century run until August 24th at The Adrienne Theater. Tickets here.